Today is the Feast of St Etheldreda, who was the Abbess of Ely in the seventh century …
The church of St Etheldreda
Easily overlooked on account of its tucked-away location on Ely Place, the church of St Etheldreda was originally built as a private chapel in Ely Palace, owned by the Bishops of Ely, in around 1293, possibly on the site of an earlier structure, and pressed into service as an Anglican church after the Reformation. It was undamaged in the Great Fire of 1666, although it has been somewhat modified subsequently. It was “restored to the old faith” in 1874.
The exterior is a rare, restrained and fine surviving example of the Decorated Gothic style of ecclesiastical architecture.
The interior contains a number of memorials to Catholic martyrs, including John Houghton, Prior of Charterhouse, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1535 for challenging King Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church.
John of Gaunt lived in Ely Palace after his own Savoy Palace was destroyed in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.
In a scene in Shakespeare’s “Richard II”, set here, he uttered the immortal words:
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle,|This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,|This other Eden, demi-paradise,|This fortress built by Nature for herself|Against infection and the hand of war,|This happy breed of men, this little world,|This precious stone set in the silver sea,|Which serves it in the office of a wall,|Or as a moat defensive to a house,|Against the envy of less happier lands,|This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
The palace’s gardens were said to produce the finest strawberries in London, in honour of which a “Strawberrie Fayre” is still held nearby every June. In a scene in “Richard III”, Gloster says to Ely:
“My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there; I do beseech you, send me some of them”.
The palace’s Great Hall was famed for its banquets. One such, in 1531, attended by the then king, Henry VIII and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, is said to have lasted for five days! According to surviving records, the guests managed to get through 24 oxen, 51 cows, 91 pigs, 100 sheep, 168 swans, 444 pigeons, 720 chickens and over 4000 larks!
In 1576, the palace was ordered by Elizabeth I to be leased to her favourite Sir Christopher Hatton, for a rent of £10 a year, ten loads of hay, and a rose picked at mid-summer. It remained more or less continuously in the possession of the Hatton family until the death of the last Lord Hatton in 1772, when it was finally demolished to make way for what is now Hatton Garden.